Making people happy at an affordable rate is timeless. It is one of the reasons Minor League Baseball has stuck around since its inception in the fall of 1901. Despite its quirky schedule, MiLB is currently as popular as it’s ever been, with a total of 41.8 million fans attending MiLB games in 2017 — the fifth-highest attendance in history — and the 13th consecutive season of league attendance increases. Some MiLB teams even exceed some MLB teams in per-game attendance. Clearly, times are good.
Having said that, I think there is something that has hindered MiLB from excelling as much as it can on the business side. That something is the name. Minor. It sounds less-than, not-as-much-as, less than professional. It’s the kid’s table at a family dinner. The minor is applicable to the players, not the business, but most people don’t know that. They see minor, and they look at it like a cute pug, not to be taken seriously.
My recommendation, then, is to change the name of MiLB. It could be a way to reverse this misconception among the corporate types.
Preface: There Are No Guarantees
A name change costs a lot of money and time. There is the immense task of redoing marks and logos, not to mention consulting fees, test groups, and other marketing and operational initiatives. Nobody is suddenly going to invest millions due to a name change, nor will new people immediately find the league more appealing. It won’t increase SEO rankings, and it could very possibly cost more than it initially brings in.
There’s also the chance that people who like the fun and irreverence of MiLB might shun the new name. It might seem like MiLB is selling out, and moving away from what has made them successful for generations. Fans turn to MiLB because it isn’t Major, or stuffy, or corporate, or non-personal. I get that. There is risk, but I am not advocating for changing the unique ambiance and the fabric of the sport. If anything, I am looking to amplify and bring attention to it.
I know that unlike my previous suggestions, a name change is not a direct, tangible revenue generator. But I do think there is money being left on the table, and judging from league comparables, better positioning could do wonders with larger companies and team revenues.
MiLB Is On It Already
In 2012, MiLB launched Project Brand, which aimed to leverage the aggregate national strength of all teams to secure league-wide sponsorships, similar to other leagues. Project Brand evolved into MiLB Enterprises, which now has a full-time staff of 20. After speaking with a few sources, total annual revenue generated from this banner should exceed $10 million within a few seasons. They also have a very ambitious goal of increasing total fan attendance to 50 million by 2026. With great help from this entity, the industry is starting to get the notoriety of being a business engine on par with other leagues, as opposed to just being local gems for 176 cities. This isn’t easy with very little media and content distribution outside of their own stadium and territory.
Let’s look at a notable comparable, Major League Soccer (MLS), to see how a successful MiLB rebranding might look. I have a lot of respect for MLS, and their exemplary business model is worth highlighting when discussing growing a sports league.
What MiLB Can Learn from MLS
The league started with ten teams in 1996, and by 2020, they will be at 28 teams, with its expansion fee set at $150 million per franchise. MLS’ 2017 attendance was 8.27 million fans amongst 22 teams, its 2016 total attendance was 7.37 million. This is more then triple the 2.25 million they had in 2002. That is some serious money and serious growth, and in major US and Canadian markets.
But as we mentioned above, MiLB attendance was 41 million in 2017. Nearly five times as many fans attended Minor League Baseball then Major League Soccer. Why, then, does MLS feel much bigger then MiLB? I asked three friends in sports who aren’t involved with either league, and they all resoundingly said MLS seems bigger.
I think the answer to this question lies in a few subtle aspects that MiLB could learn from.
Scarcity of Games
MLS teams play 17 home games, compared to upwards of 65 for most MiLB teams. The average MLS game draws 22,000 fans, and the average MiLB game draws 3,500. MLS games appear bigger because they are bigger. There are more fans in the stands, more noise, and more urgency to see a game, because there are fewer of them.
While other sports hold off on jersey sponsorships and others have jumped in the deep end , MLS has emulated its European peers with high-profile, high-cost sponsorship visibility. This similarity further reinforces that you are watching the most world’s most popular sport. It also gives companies the presence, prominence, dominance and importance they crave. For companies that invest hundreds of millions on annual advertising dollars, owning visibility on a sports team is a good change of pace, and complimentary to the global branding they do.
National TV Deal
The MLS receives $90 million annual from its TV deal, split between FOX Sports and ESPN, and Univision in Spanish. In Canada, TSN and TVA Sports own the National rights. That is just over $4 million USD per team.
This exposure amplifies those jersey sponsorships in front of a national TV audience every game. Splitting up games between competing networks (ESPN and FS1) ensures both networks promote the sport with commercials, promos and, perhaps most importantly, talking about it on their various daily talkshows. This puts the game on the same platform as the NFL and NBA, because if Colin Cowherd is talking about it, it must be big.
I am not going to disparage professional athletes of any sort, but a smart thing MLS does is take players who have lost a step in more competitive leagues and use their star power in MLS. Against lesser competition, they dominate again, and the players get to refresh their brand and be stars again. This is how videos go viral.
The name Major League Soccer seems bigger and more important, like it should be taken seriously. Regardless of the quality of the players, or what their future holds, the name gives the league a built-in sense of distinction and legitimacy.
So, What’s the New Name?
Hold the drumroll — I don’t actually have a better name at this point. I hate whining without a solution as much as the next person, but I flat out don’t have one at this point. The good news is that there are so many good agencies that do tremendous work, and would have a much better handle on it then me. The league could even use some of its ingenuity and get the fans involved, which has worked in the past.
I am not advocating MiLB take up exactly these formulas, but the concepts remain the same. At the 2017 Winter Meetings, MiLB Enterprises stressed for teams to focus on using the name MiLB, as opposed to Minor League Baseball. They know it is an issue, especially with large companies competing for valuable and scarce national advertising dollars.
With the right people on board, a new name could help position MiLB to take the next step off the field and greatly enhance teams’ activations and bottom lines.
Lead Photo Ⓒ Gregory Fisher – USA Today Sports